Coconut Quinoa and Kale with Tropical Pesto + Notes on Belize

Coconut quinoa and kale with tropical pesto (vegan and gluten-free) -

I’ve been south of the U.S. border twice now. The first time was in college, with my family, the summer after my grandmother passed away. We flew to Mexico in an attempt to leave behind the heavy sadness in the air at home. It kind of worked, as the only times I felt peace and solace during those months were in those seemingly alternate universes of air and sea, flying through clouds and floating on the surface of clear blue waters.

quinoa and palm tree in San Pedro

My trip to Belize earlier this summer was entirely different. I was invited to come explore the country, eat good food and attend the launch party of a beautiful Belizean cookbook called Flavors of Belize. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience so full of fun that it seemed borderline frivolous, but I welcomed it all. Our hosts, the McNab family and Rachael of McNab Design, invited Simone and I into their home and spoiled us rotten for six days. I’ve had over a month now to mull over the experience and thought it was high time to share my thoughts on it with you, along with a recipe inspired by the book and my trip.

San Pedro Island in Belize

To be honest, when I first learned of the possibility of this trip to Belize, I had to search for the country on a map. In case you, too, spent most of your geography course wondering how your balding teacher managed to look so much like a gerbil, Belize is just south of Mexico. It is bordered by the Caribbean Sea on the east and Guatemala to the west and south.

Getting to Belize was surprisingly easy; it’s only a two-and-a-half hour flight from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport (U.S. flights to Belize go through DFW, Houston and Miami). To add to the convenience, the official language of Belize is English, so there was no language barrier to speak of, and Belizean businesses even accept American dollars (at an exchange rate of one American dollars to two Belize dollars).

Belize countryside and kale

Although there is plenty of good food to be found in Belize, I would go back principally for the beauty and adventure to be found there. I am so thankful to McNab Publishing for inviting us to tour Belize. To say that they showed us around would be a major understatement—they took us over and under and all around Belize.

During our six-day stay, we snorkeled over the barrier reef and stroked a nurse shark’s belly in open waters with San Pedro’s Belize Dive Connection, zip-lined over the rainforest and floated through an underground crystal cave with Chukka Tours and climbed up the Xunantunich Mayan ruins. We hiked through the jungle, swam under waterfalls and practiced yoga on a screened-in yoga platform with Katharine on the grounds of Hidden Valley Inn. Belize is only about the size of New Jersey, so I was astonished to discover so much unadulterated natural beauty and diverse ecosystems in such a small area.

cilantro-cashew pesto

Belizean food, like the people, is a big mix of diverse cultures, including Mayan, Caribbean, British, Mestizo, Garifuna, Creole, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese and Mennonite. I tried to learn as much as I could about the various influences while I was eating, but reading the summaries of each culture’s influences in the Flavors of Belize cookbook on the flight home helped me make sense of it all.

I didn’t get to see the cookbook until I got to Belize, but I’m pleased to be associated with such a well done publication. The cookbook provides a thorough representation of Belizean food, from typical rice and beans to crazy soups (like black relleno and cow foot), seafood, chicken and pork, and desserts, too. The vibrant photos by Matt Armendariz present Belizean food at its best, so if you don’t get a chance to visit Belize, you can always buy the cookbook. (I promise they aren’t paying me to say any of this!)

Typical Belizean meals consist of coconut rice, beans, meat (chicken or pork) and a small side salad. Since Belize relies heavily on imports, dairy products can be expensive and hard to come by (a pint of Blue Bell ice cream goes for twenty American dollars!), and greens like kale don’t grow well. I can’t imagine finding quinoa or other health food store staples there. However, great seafood is easy enough to find along the coast, and the fresh cashews, coconut water and tropical fruit are real treats.

kale coconut salad and Mayan ruins (Xunantunich)

The recipe I’m sharing today is more of an abstract, Belize-inspired meal than anything else. I stuffed myself silly in Belize, appeasing my guilty conscience with promises to eat kale and quinoa when I got home. “Kale and quinoa,” I’d say in my head as I lifted yet another ceviche-covered fried tortilla chip to my lips. “Kale and quinoa,” I’d say out loud at breakfast while I sopped up refried black beans with Belizean fried bread, called fry jacks.

Something about Chef Rob Pronk’s recipe for “tropical” pesto, made with cashews and cilantro, captured my attention on the flight home. It occurred to me that I could combine it with the kale and quinoa I vowed to eat during the trip when I got home. I cooked the quinoa partially in coconut milk, like Belizeans do with rice, and mixed in big handfuls of chopped kale and bright green tropical pesto. I knew, based on Heidi Swanson’s toasted kale and coconut salad in Super Natural Every Day, how surprisingly well kale and coconut go together, but I was pretty floored at how much I enjoyed this hearty salad. Try it!

Vegan and gluten-free coconut quinoa and kale with tropical pesto -

Coconut Quinoa and Kale with Tropical Pesto
5.0 from 10 reviews
Recipe type: Salad
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4+
Quinoa cooked in coconut milk, tossed with kale and cilantro-cashew "tropical" pesto—a warm salad inspired by my recent trip to Belize. Healthy and vegan, yes, but delicious above all.
  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed under running water in a fine mesh colander for a couple of minutes
  • 1 cup light coconut milk
  • 1 small bunch of kale, stems removed and leaves chopped (for a total of about 4 cups chopped kale)
  • ½ small red onion, chopped
  • ⅓ cup large, unsweetened coconut flakes*
Tropical Cilantro-Cashew Pesto
  • 2 cups cilantro, packed
  • scant ½ cup cashews
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • ½ lime, juiced (or more, to taste)
  • pinch red pepper flakes, optional
  1. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup coconut milk and 1 cup water, and bring to a boil. Add the quinoa, cover and simmer for 15 to 17 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork and mix in the red onion. Cover and set aside.
  2. Make the pesto: combine cilantro, cashews and garlic in a food processor. Start processing the mixture, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, lime juice and red pepper flakes, all to taste, and blend well.
  3. In a medium serving bowl, combine the warm coconut quinoa, chopped kale and pesto. Mix well with a big spoon and season to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary.
  4. In a skillet over medium heat, toast the coconut flakes for a few minutes until golden and fragrant, stirring often. Top the salad with coconut flakes and serve warm.
  • Cilantro-cashew pesto adapted from the tropical pesto in Flavors of Belize, the cookbook. Salad inspired by my trip to Belize, courtesy of McNab Design and several generous sponsors.
  • I'm not a big fan of white quinoa (I find it bland), so I always recommend using a rainbow blend or red or black quinoa.
  • The recipe didn't specify to toast the cashews first, so I didn't, but toasting the nuts before blending them into the pesto would add an extra dimension of flavor.
  • This salad keeps well in the fridge for a couple of days, but I think it is best served fresh. Either eat it cold or gently reheated.
  • *Where to buy coconut flakes: Look for them in the baking section at Whole Foods, health food stores or well-stocked grocery stores. The brands I see most often are "Let's Do Organic" (green package) and Bob's Red Mill.

P.s. You can view many more photos of the Belize trip on facebook!


  1. says

    This looks delicious! I make kale pesto all of the time, and I’ve made an “asian” pesto before with cilantro, but never anything integrating all of these ingredients. Wonderful and inspiring.

    Also, thanks for the Belize tips–we’ve snorkeled a lot of the Caribbean, but have been aching to go here for a while precisely because of the reefs. If you have specific snorkeling tips, we’d love to hear those as well (we’re experienced snorkelers and prefer to have less crowded waters…).

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • says

      Sorry Cat, sounds like you are a much more advanced snorkeler than I am! The barrier reef runs along almost the entire length of Belize so I’m sure there are lots of less crowded areas to be found. It’s stunning under there!

  2. says

    Belize looks just wonderful, it’s not somewhere I’d really thought about going before but I’m very keen to visit having read this post! I love how you took the flavours of Belize and combined them with some of your own favourite ingredients here.

  3. Jann says

    Just discovered your blog and it is fantastic! I am not normally one to leave comments but I can see the amount of time, effort and pride you take in your posts so I felt compelled to say how wonderful your site is and thank you. I’ve starred almost every entry…..I have some cooking to do! Love your writing…. I really look forward to more great posts and recipes.

  4. says

    Standouts: cooking quinoa in coconut milk & cashew pesto. These are both certainties in my kitchen now. Especially the former as they are both staples in my house.

    I’m beyond words jealous of your trip. I not only know where it is on a map but have been day dreaming/planning/researching a trip there for nearly two years! I still haven’t had the chance. But I will. I’m an avid diver, Mayan enthusiast, and all around fan of getting off the beaten path. When I finally manage to make it down there, I’m going to be asking for insider tips!

    • says

      Can’t wait for you to go to Belize, Beth. We got quite a tour so I’ll have plenty of suggestions for you! It’s just gorgeous.

  5. says

    I definitely agree on the kale & coconut combo! I love braising kale in coconut milk and topping it with a poached egg. Yum! What an amazing trip too!

  6. says

    Beautiful photos! I love it when your travels can inspire your cooking. And your time in Belize sounds wonderful. (especially the underground crystal caves bit—are they anything like the cenotes of the Yucatan?)

  7. says

    Your trip sounds dreamy! I’m planning a trip to Europe this year, but Belize is on my long term “to travel: list. And this recipe is bookmarked, like almost everything you post. I forget to tell you, I made watermelon juice (or maybe I did tell you – I’m losing it!). At any rate, it was incredible!!

    • says

      I can’t remember if you told me, but glad you liked the watermelon juice! I’m not a big juice drinker but I cannot get enough of that stuff. Your comments are always a treat, Ashley, thank you!

  8. says

    This recipe was indeed a keeper! I loved it!! I added cashew pieces to the final product for some nutty crunch and loved that variation as well. Thank you, Kate! :)

  9. says

    I made this last night and got RAVE reviews! The hint of sweetness that is added by cooking the quinoa in coconut milk is awesome! And the cilantro pesto was so good – it tasted so fresh. Thanks for the recipe :-) xo

  10. Katelynn says

    Great recipe. Just a heads up that the coconut milk gave my quinoa a texture almost like grits – not bad, just not what I was expecting.

    I also skipped the pesto (I’m one of ‘those’ anti-cilantro people), but added some cumin and crushed red pepper to give it a little kick.

  11. Beth yehaskel says

    Made this in original form and it was great! Tonight I did it again but with a bulgur and red quinoa mix, and basil and pine nuts instead of cilantro and cashews. Also a great version! Thanks Kate!

  12. says

    Totally made this for a potluck and was TOTALLY the most popular gal at the party (as predicted). Worked a little lemongrass into the pesto too. Thanks Kathryne! :))

  13. says

    I just made this for dinner and it was FANTASTIC! Cooking the quinoa in coconut milk is genius! And the pesto – we were all licking it clean :)
    Thanks for the great recipes, keep them coming!

  14. says

    This was awesome, made it this week. Definitely helped banish the junk food guilt of the previous weekend. But also made it okay for me to follow it up with ice cream? I don’t think that works. Anyway, thanks so much, this is definitely going on the rotation!

    • says

      Quinoa followed by ice cream, that’s the way to do it! Glad you enjoyed the recipe, Esther. I was afraid it would seem too healthy to try, so I’ve been happy to receive such positive feedback on it!

  15. Jodie says

    That cilantro pesto sounds amazing!

    Just one thing: I think you may have confused Belize’s Barrier Reef and the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef, which is off the Eastern coast of Australia, is the World’s largest coral reef system and covers an area of approximately 344,400 square kilometres.

    • says

      Thanks, Jodie! I was told that the Belize Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living barrier reef. If that’s the case, I presume it means that a significant portion of the Great Barrier Reef has died off. However, this fact came from members of the Belizean tourism industry—I would presume their information is correct but I’m not entirely sure it is.

      • Jodie says

        I think the Belizean tourism team may have been fibbing a little. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest *living* organism, and the only living organism visible from space!
        That said, the Belize Barrier Reef is still absolutely spectacular! I went snorkeling there a couple of years ago, and would go back in a heartbeat.

        • says

          Thank you for setting me straight, Jodie! I’m revising my post to correct the inaccuracy. I would go back to Belize in a heartbeat, too! Such a beautiful country.

  16. Ella B says

    Thank you so much for this recipe and your notes on Belize. I lived in Belize for a couple of years about 10 years ago and I have been missing it lately. Just made your recipe and it was excellent! I love the coconut milk touch!

  17. Marisa says

    Oh Kate! I’m so glad I found you! This was the most delicious dinner I have ever made! I doubled the recipe and added crispy tofu to the top. Wow, thank you, thank you. I also made your raw kale salad with creamy tahini dressing last night – amazing. Consider me a life long follower.

  18. Caitlin says

    Hi Kate!!
    I’m looking at visiting Belize for my honeymoon, as someone who doesn’t eat any meat or fish (but I do consume dairy), do you think a vegetarian will starve there or did you see/find several options?

    I’m definitely going to bookmark this post for some tips on activities and things to do while there!!

    • says

      Hi Caitlin, I’m so sorry for the delayed response. I don’t think you’ll starve. Good breakfast food should be easy to find; most restaurants offer a meal of scrambled eggs, beans and fryjacks (fried bread similar to sopapillas). Belizeans eat tons of rice and beans in general, though you might want to make sure there isn’t pork in the beans. The rest will just depend on the restaurants you visit. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good salads to be found there—greens are hard to come by and they tend to serve British-style salads that contain lots of mayo. Best of luck and congrats on the wedding!

  19. Sophia Tsai says

    My fav. dish to bring to holiday potlucks this season! It’s so simple and tasty! Plus, vegetarian and celiac friendly! Thanks so much for posting this.

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Sophia! Based on the comments I’ve received on this post, it sounds like this dish has made an appearance at quite a few potlucks. That makes me happy.

  20. Elizabeth says

    This is delicious! After having this in my queue forever, I finally made it last night and it was wonderful. I was skeptical about the raw kale not even massaged but it was a great balance. I’m going to use this pesto elsewhere too, I think….

    • says

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe. I’d like to find more uses for that pesto, too—can’t get enough of the stuff!

  21. Elnora H says

    This was sooooo tasty! We made it last night and I think it will become a staple for my dinners/leftovers for lunch. Never thought of cooking the quinoa in the coconut milk but it makes for a really nice flavor. My only alteration would be to omit the raw onions – maybe it was just the onion we had but it really overpowered the subtler flavors of the coconut, cilantro and lime and I ended up picking most of my onions out. Next time I will either saute the onions first in coconut oil and then add them or just omit them completely.

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Elnora! I’m sorry the onions overwhelmed your dish. I wonder if maybe chopped green onions would be a good alternative?

  22. Elnora H says

    Oh – and will be using the leftover pesto on vegan tacos!! We make them with black beans, sauteed onions and roasted sweet potatoes – this pesto will be a great topping!

  23. Katie says

    I bought coconut milk for another recipe (coconut fish tacos) and I wasn’t sure whether to buy the unsweetened or sweetened coconut milk. I ended up buying the unsweetened since I avoid anything that’s “sweetened”. For this recipe is it better to use the sweetened milk? I feel. The unsweetened just doesn’t have that coconut taste I was expecting.

    • says

      Good question, Katie. I always buy unsweetened coconut flakes and milk because the sweetened stuff tastes artificial to me. The coconut in this recipe is subtle, but you could amp it up with extra coconut flakes, I think.

  24. Elyse says

    I just made this dish for dinner and… I am just stunned. Just about every single ingredient is a superfood AND it was so delicious, I couldn’t help licking the spoon! Next time I’m going to make a double portion of the fantastic pesto and save some to spread on whole grain toast in the morning. This recipe is a winner!!! Thank you so much for posting it.

    • says

      Hooray! Thanks, Elyse. I’m so glad you loved this healthy recipe. I was afraid that the dish might look like “bird food” to some, but commenters like you are proving otherwise.

  25. says

    We had this for dinner a few nights ago and it was SOOOOO good! A great combo of flavors. It sounds so simple (and it is!), but the flavors really work. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Jenn says

    I’m thinking of making this for a potluck. It looks delicious. Did you use sweetened or unsweetened coconut flakes?

    • says

      Sorry for the confusion! Unsweetened coconut. (Actually, I never use the sweetened stuff.) Readers have reported that this is a popular potluck dish!

  27. Adam S says

    Hey Kate,

    I discovered the site today looking for sweet potato fry recipe, and am loving all the pictures of delicious vegetables. Have you experimented with cooking the quinoa and coconut milk inside a rice cooker? My inner laziness would like to shorten the quinoa cooking time utilizing a rice cooker.

    • says

      Hey Adam, thanks for commenting! I’m sorry, I haven’t tried cooking quinoa in a rice cooker. I *think* it would work. Quinoa takes less than 20 minutes of stove time, so it’s not terribly time consuming. Please let me know if you try the rice cooker method!

  28. Sarah says

    Made this for friends last night. Yum! I have a friend who hates cilantro and even she asked for the recipe.. I added some lemongrass to give it an asian kick :)

  29. Sara says

    This was really great! Super interesting, flavorful and filling. I would definitely make again. P.S. – your new site looks great! Thanks for all the easy ways to search… how I can get to vegan easily.

  30. Sophie says

    I made this salad for a potluck today, and people were rolling their eyes in joy. One of my friends said that it was the best salad she had ever had! I thought that you needed to be informed of this comment. :)

    Of course, there were just a few tinkerings that I did to the recipe. I added a dollop of white beans to the pesto for creaminess and a bit of protein, and also did halfsies quinoa and millet since I am running low on quinoa.

    Truly a unique salad, thank you, rockstar!

  31. says

    Made this last night and loved it! Only problem was that the rinsing compromised the shape of the quinoa and a lot of it disintegrated into powder, meaning that my final product was a mush. (It tasted AMAZING though!) The dip is also phenomenal. In order to quickly destem the cilantro, I just held the stems in a bunch in my fist and combed through the leaves with a fork. It worked like a charm, and got the job done SO much quicker than the shaving method or individually tearing the leaves off. In a recipe where you need two cups (packed) it was a lifesaver.

  32. Michelle says

    This recipe was the bees knees! I have made several of your dishes, Kate, and they have all been excellent. And I am a very picky chef (and eater). The cashew pesto was so delicious. I get pretty excited every time I learn a new recipe for a fabulous sauce. So, needless to say, this was exciting. Followed the recipe to a T, but threw in some grilled shrimp for added protein. Will definitely add this one to my rotation. Thank-you for sharing your creativity with my kitchen. Now whenever I’m not sure what to cook I just come here… xo Michelle

  33. LeAnn says

    I so wanted to love this salad but found that to have both raw onions and raw garlic was a little over-powering. Have you tried cooking either and adding them? I so love your other recipes though and have recommended this site to lots of friends.

    • says

      LeAnn, I’m so sorry to hear that! I can definitely see how that could happen. I would suggest just leaving out the onions altogether next time and easing up on the garlic.

  34. Holly says

    I just made the coconut quinoa and kale with tropical pesto. Delicious! I added more lime to both the pesto and the quinoa before combining them. I think next time I’ll toast the cashews as recommended to add another dimension. Fabulous. Thank you for sharing new ways to eat such an incredible food!

  35. Megan says

    Love the sound of the coconut quinoa but I hate cilantro; is there anything else you can recommend to make the pesto that would go well with coconut?

  36. Laura says

    Delighted to find this recipe. I’m taking this to a party for a friend who is leaving for a Peace Corps stint in Belize.

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